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The Packers’ Crushing NFC Championship Loss Is a Victory Lap for NFL Analytics

All season long, Aaron Rodgers and Co. outperformed their advanced numbers. Green Bay’s luck finally ran out on Sunday night against the 49ers.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t outplay the numbers forever. All season, the Packers have played better than their underlying numbers indicated they should have, and on Sunday the luck finally ran out. Dramatically. The 49ers ran Green Bay off the field and out of the playoffs in a dominating 37-20 win that extinguished the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes.

This was not a major surprise, given the way the first matchup between these two teams, a 37-8 Niners rout, went. It was even less surprising for those NFL fans who worship at the altar of advanced analytics, which has been preaching that the wheels would fall off Green Bay’s wagon sooner or later.

Though the Packers earned a 13-3 record and the NFC’s no. 2 seed, they were less stellar in a number of other categories. In Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric—which essentially measures a team’s per-play efficiency—they finished 10th, including eighth on offense and 15th on defense. The team also had a point differential of plus-63, which was ninth in the league and fifth in the NFC. That point differential implies a 9.7-6.3 record, on average—yet the Packers exceeded that by more than three wins. The team went 6-1 in one-score games (plus had another two wins by eight points, which could be counted as one-score victories), yet another sign of unsustainable overachievement.

These red flags waved vividly in the NFC championship game. The Niners raced to a 27-0 halftime lead, showing at every turn that they were the superior team. San Francisco entered the game with the fifth-best DVOA, the third-best point differential, and home-field advantage—though the game was even more lopsided than those factors would indicate.

Green Bay’s listless performance didn’t just shine a spotlight on the team’s lackluster regular-season numbers, it also exposed the Packers’ specific flaws. That begins with the team’s rushing defense, which ranked just 23rd in DVOA. The Niners rushed for a whopping 285 yards in the game on 42 rushes, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Jimmy Garoppolo threw just eight passes all night—there was never any need for him to do more than that.

If one play could define the game, it was this 18-yard touchdown rush by running back Raheem Mostert in the second quarter. The hole the Niners offensive line broke open was so wide that most of the fans in Santa Clara probably could have taken this to the house themselves:

Mostert finished with 220 yards on 29 carries for an incredible average of 7.6 yards per tote. He also added four touchdowns—but before you go thinking he’s the next Derrick Henry (or Christian McCaffrey or Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley), take a peek at his career numbers. Mostert had the game of his life, and he’s the definition of a player who is “just a guy,” as the 27-year-old former undrafted free agent had a career total of 297 rushing yards before this season. He’s come on strong for the Niners lately, but head coach Kyle Shanahan loves to ride the hot hand at running back (and Tevin Coleman suffered a shoulder injury early in the game). Analytics heads have long said that rushing success is more about scheme and blocking personnel than star running backs, and the success the Niners had on the ground with Mostert is a perfect example of that—another win for the advanced numbers.

Simply put, Shanahan’s zone-running scheme demolished the Packers. It didn’t matter who they handed the ball off to—wide receiver Deebo Samuel grabbed 43 yards on two carries, including this 32-yard scamper in the third quarter:

At times, it was like the Packers defense wasn’t even trying:

On the other side of the ball, the Packers offense was shut out in the first half and didn’t get its first points until the 8:44 mark of the third quarter, by which point the Niners had a 27-point lead. Aaron Rodgers’s final stat line—31-of-39 for 326 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks—looks respectable enough against the league’s second-best defense by DVOA, but virtually all of that production came in garbage time. At halftime, the Niners had a 99.7 percent win probability and Rodgers had a much more embarrassing line: 9-of-12 for 65 yards, an interception, and a lost fumble.

Rodgers’s advanced stats have been trending down for years. This season the veteran QB finished 20th in QBR, tied for 27th in completion percentage above expectation, and 13th in DVOA, though he was sixth in PFF’s grading. In the regular season, Rodgers was below the NFL’s average in yards per attempt (7.0) and completion percentage (62.0), and was exactly average in touchdown percentage (4.6). And while Rodgers missed star wideout Davante Adams for four games after he suffered a toe injury, Rodgers also benefited from an offensive line that ranked first in ESPN’s pass-block win rate and fourth in PFF’s pass-blocking grade. Regardless of the quality of his supporting cast, the idea that Aaron Freakin’ Rodgers would be below average in yards per attempt is unthinkable.

That said, the two-time MVP and Super Bowl champion still flashes his extraordinary arm talent and ball-placement ability a few times every game, as he did on this 65-yard bomb to Adams in the fourth quarter:

But those plays are now few and far between for the 36-year-old. Rodgers’s best skill is now avoiding interceptions. For the second year in a row, he topped the league in interception percentage (0.7), but that isn’t enough. Rodgers can avoid mistakes, but he no longer consistently makes the plays that can elevate a team from good to great—his dreadful first half against the Niners was another reminder that the legendary Packers quarterback is far removed from his 2011-14 career peak.

To be clear: Rodgers is not a bad quarterback, and the Packers are not a bad team. But Rodgers, once the cream of the QB crop, is now somewhere on the fringes of the league’s top 10. And while the Packers were good enough to be a postseason team this year, they were lucky to earn the conference’s no. 2 seed—and were nowhere near ready to hang with the 49ers. The advanced numbers were clear on both these points all season long—you just had to pay attention to them.